Tre Jones’ return to starting lineup is paying off for Spurs: ‘The ultimate competitor’

The San Antonio Spurs departed Tuesday for Miami with the worst 50-game record in franchise history and a daunting rodeo road trip — nine games that will take them past the All-Star break and, finally, back to a Leap Year game against the Oklahoma City Thunder, which will be only their third home game in February.

It’s nearly impossible to find anything positive about such an ugly scenario unless one separates the Spurs’ first 50 games into two sections: pre-Jones and post-Jones.

That would be 33 games played before Tre Jones was returned to his role as starting point guard and 17 that followed that move.

The experiment that began the season with 6-foot-8 power forward Jeremy Sochan as the starting point guard in a “positionless” lineup that included 7-4 Victor Wembanyama and 6-11 Zach Collins was discarded on Jan. 4.

It had produced just five victories and an 18-game losing streak.

Worse, it produced a horrendous average point differential of minus-10.5 points per game.

Jones, who is 6 foot 1 and age 24, had started 65 of the 68 games he played in 2022-23, his third season in silver and black after being drafted in the second round of the 2020 NBA Draft from Duke. Since Gregg Popovich put him back in the starting lineup, the Spurs have gone 5-12. The lone blowout loss in that time came against Oklahoma City, with Jones in street clothes nursing a sore right ankle.

In Jones’ 16 starts, the Spurs’ average point differential is minus-0.5, an indication of how much more competitive the Spurs are now than they were during the 2023 portion of the schedule.

The fact that six of the 11 losses with Jones in his more significant role have been by single digits matters for the league’s youngest team, which is still in its early stages of development.

Jones, who is averaging career highs in points (9.7), assists (5.8) and rebounds (3.2) per game, admits it took both introspection and perseverance to accept being sent to the bench as the season began.

The 18-game losing streak made it even more difficult for him to swallow.

“Being a competitor and putting in the number of hours I had put in at the gym in the off-season, watching film and trying to improve my game, of course I wanted to be a starter. At the same time, I knew what we were trying to do. But, not starting brought its challenges through the start of the season, not being out there and able to help the team in the ways I knew I could.

“I also knew if I just stayed ready an opportunity could present itself and I could take advantage of it.”

Does he deem the advantage fully taken, a point or two firmly made?

“You could say so, selfishly,” he said. “Any chance you get in this league to prove yourself you’ve got to try to make the most of it. I felt like getting the opportunity to start again was something I wanted to make the most of, and I continue to make the most of.”

Popovich has acknowledged Jones as one of the most competitive of all this season’s Spurs. He has called him “the ultimate competitor” on numerous occasions, often throwing in the ultimate praise.

“He’s a winner,” the 75-year-old coach has said on more than one occasion.

“That means a lot, coming from Coach Pop,” Jones said. “He’s the ultimate competitor himself and, obviously, the ultimate winner, with the five championships and the most wins of any coach. So, growing up being the competitor I am and always trying to win, it means a lot.”

Jones has developed a special synergy with rookie sensation Wembanyama. They have made the high pick-and-roll a staple of the offense, and Jones is adept at getting to the rim for layins and floaters when opponents decide Wembanyama is the bigger problem in the lane.

And, when he passes to Wemby after coming off the pick, he continues to make himself available for a return pass because Wembanyama’s court vision is one of his strengths.

“Victor’s IQ is high on the basketball court,” Jones said. “He thinks the game at a very high level and that’s where we’re able to be on the same page. Early in our careers and playing together, the way he thinks about the game is very similar to how I think of the game as a point guard.

“You can tell he watches a lot of basketball and is eager to learn, as well, and pick up new things. It’s easy to play with a guy like that.”

How easy is it for Wembanyama to run such plays with Jones?

“His expertise is precious,” Wemby said after having to endure the Spurs’ worst loss of 2024 in the only game Jones hasn’t played since New Year’s Day.

Jones got his competitiveness the hard way. As the youngest of three basketball-crazy brothers, he tagged along to pickup games with older brothers Jadee (now 38) and Tyus, now 27 and in his ninth NBA season, his first with the Washington Wizards. They took no pity on him when they allowed him to take part in games. There was no choice for Tre to thrive unless he could outcompete his elders.

The three brothers learned the game from their mother, Debbie, who had been a high school star in North Dakota and played two years at a junior college there before moving to the Minneapolis-St. Paul area in her 20s. There, she even played in some men’s leagues.

Eventually, she started coaching the teams her sons played on.

“As far as us growing up, she was our coach,” Tre Jones said. “She was pretty hard on us. She was hard on the whole team. There was no messing around. She was very strict and to the point. She knew the game, was big on fundamentals and taught the game to us early.

“She is the ultimate competitor, as well. She always wanted to win. She wanted us to have fun with everything but made sure we were competing and made sure our goal was to win.”

Popovich noticed that spirit and anyone who wonders why he calls Jones a winner need only watch the final seconds of the Spurs only “signature” wins this season: a 115-114 road win over at Phoenix on Oct. 31 and a 113-112 home victory over the Western Conference-leading Minnesota Timberwolves on Jan. 27.

Two defensive plays by Jones made him an unsung hero in both wins.

In Phoenix, the Spurs had erased 19 points of a 20-point Suns lead after Wembanyama made a putback dunk of a Devin Vassell 3-point attempt with 6.8 seconds remaining in the game.

When the Suns eschewed a timeout and instead looked to make a quick in-bounds pass, Jones saw Kevin Durant heading for the corner to catch the pass. He sprinted away from Suns guard Eric Gordon and “climbed up” on Durant as the Suns star raised the ball above his head and pivoted left. That allowed Spurs forward Keldon Johnson to snatch the ball away, drive to the rim and make a game-winning floater.

Against the Wolves, the Spurs led by a point with 3.3 seconds left, a time-out called by Minnesota coach Chris Finch to set up a final play. Everyone in the sold-out Frost Bank Center knew Anthony Edwards, who already had scored 32 points, would be the preferred shooter. Jones spoiled that plan by pressuring Edwards into the backcourt to take the inbounds pass. With double-team help from Johnson, Edwards had to pass to Karl Anthony-Towns, who missed an awkward 3-pointer at the buzzer.

“In those moments I think you just have to find a way to disrupt things and try to win the game,” Jones said. “With KD, you want to pressure up into him. He’s tall and long, so try to climb up into him and make him uncomfortable so somebody else can come and make a play.

“If Edwards, (Minnesota’s) best player, is coming off, don’t let him get an easy catch, but force it to a longer shot with less time on the clock.”

Such plays, Jones said, can’t be taught.

“They’re weird plays,” he said, “the kind you don’t get to talk about before they happen and prepare for them. They’re just in the moment.”

Jones also remains very much in the moment for his mother and original basketball mentor. Debbie was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2019, putting her toughness to the test.

“I was a freshman at Duke, and it was a very tough time,” Jones said. “I was so close to her growing up. Seeing her go through that battle was something I had never experienced, something my family had never experienced. But she was a warrior, a trooper. She was able to fight through it quickly and beat it. She was cancer-free within a year.

“Just moving forward after that put things in perspective for me about life. Everything had been about basketball, but that moment helped me see how life is; how important family is; how important your health is; how important the things you do apart from basketball are.”

(Photo of Tre Jones: Jess Rapfogel / Getty Images)

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